Mapping the Many Indonesian Words for Please

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Learning to say please, even in the Indonesian national language, turns out to be much less straightforward than one might imagine. Translating please from English (or other European languages) into Indonesian can only be done indirectly because our one word please, and its other European equivalents such as s’il vous plait (‘if you please,” French) map onto several Indonesian words that are deployed differentially in specific contexts. Indonesian please terms can be divided roughly into request or invitation categories. Indonesian speakers use the word tolong, which literally means “help,” when making a request, such as “please help by doing X.” Thus Indonesians can say, Tolong bawa piring, meaning “Help [the listener or others besides the speaker] by bringing the plate,” or Tolong bawakan piring, meaning, “Help [me] by bringing the plate.” A somewhat more submissive request or supplication would use the word minta, which means “ask for,” or, alternately, mohon, (a very polite synonym for minta, used in more formal contexts). Thus, Minta piring, meaning “Asking for the plate,” would be another way to translate the English phrase, “Please bring the plate.” Other Indonesian words that map onto our uses for please include mari, which is an invitation word meaning “please, I invite you to do X,” or silakan/silahkan, which is a polite or more formal synonym for mari. A casual Javanese synonym for mari, widely known and used nationally, is ayo. Thus Indonesians can say mari makan, ayo makan, or silahkan makan, all meaning “Please eat,” but with the last phrase being the most formal and polite. All these phrases, which express “help me,” “I ask for,” or “go ahead and do X,” usually are matched with appropriate honorific or kinship terms of address such as Bapak (“Father” or “Sir”) or Ibu (“Mother” or “Madam”) to show additional respect for one’s elders. Each form of Indonesian request or invitation entails a matching grammatical mood, including the imperative, interrogative, and affirmative. One Javanese expert’s list of English versus Indonesian “please” forms follows, with the Indonesian “please” equivalent set in bold:

1. “Please pass the salt” (Tolong ambilkan garam, request/imperative)

2. “Please come in” (Silahkan masuk or Mari masuk, invitation/imperative)

3. “Could you please tell me where she lives?” (Maukah anda memberitahu saya di mana dia tinggal? request/interrogative)

4. “Will you please shut the door?” (Tolong tutup pintunya, request/ interrogative but less formal and polite)

5. “Yes, please” (Iya terima kasih, acceptance/affirmative)

6. “Third floor, please” (Tolong lantai ketiga, request/affirmative)

7. “Please” (Saya mohonor Tolonglah saya, elliptic request or begging/imperative)/

 

Clearly, many of these Indonesian terms work rather differently than our generic word, please. The Indonesian phrasings make it more explicit than the English equivalents, whether the speaker is asking for assistance or compliance. Indonesian also is clearer than English about specifying whether what is being requested is considered to be for the speaker’s, the listener’s, or a third party’s benefit. Requests generally designate either an elder or superior’s rightful demand or a social inferior’s more humbling request. In the latter case, extra elements may be added, such as honorific titles of address, or the suffix lah after the verb, which softens any request. Paralanguage, such as tone of voice, relative height of body positioning, or eye direction, also are involved in what we might call Indonesian requirements for sensitivity to hierarchical positioning in communication.5 The differential deployment of terms to connote respect makes Indonesian a deceptively difficult language for many foreigners to master. Because Indonesian (or Malay) lacks several of European languages’ most complicated features (such as verb tenses, gendered words, and consonant clusters), it is often described as an easy language to learn. In terms of very basic sentence construction or “survival proficiency,” this is accurate, and those who study Indonesian are well supported by the kind tolerance of Indonesians toward non-native speakers, who may be complimented as fluent after uttering just a few introductory sentences. But less-familiar linguistic features such as semantically generative verb forms and hierarchical or formal registers ensure that advanced study of Indonesian languages presents unexpectedly complex challenges.In highland Central Sulawesi, I frequently found myself being asked for my possessions with a “please-type” word. The Uma language synonym for minta is merapi, and I heard this term used often in my first three years of fieldwork. During visits to many villages, I was asked to leave what Indonesians call a tanda mata, a phrase that literally means “sign for the eye” but is better translated as a visual sign or souvenir. I was well aware that I was indebted to both Tobaku individuals and communities for hosting me for days or weeks at a time during my fieldwork, and I did make a conscientious effort to compensate households where I resided with locally appropriate gifts. But, sometimes, young people I hardly knew, as well as older individuals I knew better, asked me for personal possessions or items of clothing before I departed their village. I initially tried to cope with these requests by bringing extra new clothes as gifts for my hosts, but the requests for my used garments continued unabated. One day the requests reached a point where I began to think I was destined to depart the island naked. My concern over these pleas continued until one of my closest friends, Tina Eva, a Tobaku woman who had migrated in her youth to the provincial capital, exhibited her strategy for coping with what I then discovered was not special treatment reserved for foreigners. When we arrived in the highlands after a three-day hike, we presented our hosts—Tina Eva’s parents and extended family—with numerous gifts of city supplies, packaged food, and new clothes. We spent a convivial two weeks in the highlands and then prepared for our departure, receiving bundles of local produce to take back with us to the city. I then was disarmed when Tina Eva’s sisters, nieces, and cousins began to request the clothes she had been wearing during our visit. Without missing a beat, Tina Eva cheerfully began unpacking the requested skirts, blouses, and slacks—all but the outfits she needed for our three-day journey home. I followed suit, so to speak. Tina Eva’s family was delighted. On the way home, Tina Eva revealed that this had been her plan all along. She had saved up what she considered her least-flattering outfits and deliberately worn them during our visit for her family members to see. Then her family helped her unload this sartorial baggage just before her return hike through the mountains. Her generosity created more room in her backpack for the gifts of fresh produce her farming relatives sent home for her family. It was a win-win game.6 But why, I still wondered, did local people want, even seem to prefer, our “fragrant” used clothes, rather than the brand new ones? Tobaku friends later explained that they preferred the clothes we had worn when visiting their villages because these items indeed were “signs of the eye,” linked in their collective visual memory of our visit. Clothes worn by honored guests and family are considered to hold some essence of the wearer. There is a meaningful social history there, analogous to how we might treasure our grandfather’s watch or our grandmother’s lace shawl. I gradually became used to hearing the “please give me your shirt” requests, and rather than thinking that these needy people were begging for hand-me-downs, I realized instead that they were establishing a material memory of our relationship, showing their affection, and also helping me, in a small way, to mitigate my continuing obligations as a long-term visitor and adopted relation in their communities.

 

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